[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1992/2 p17-19, later designated J13]
[See Journal and Newsletter articles by Patrick Groff.]

Traversing the Hurdles to Simplified Spelling.

Patrick Groff.

Having started his career as an elementary school teacher, Patrick Groff is now Professor of Education at San Diego State University, California. He has over 300 publications to his name in the fields of education and literacy, and has served on several national bodies in the USA, such as the National Council for Teachers of English.

In an article in Elementary School Journal sixteen years ago (Groff, 1976), I discussed why there had been no significant spelling reform in English up to that time. We seem to be faced at present with the same basic question that I raised earlier: How can educators be convinced to adopt spelling reform? From an educator's viewpoint I find that the same hurdles now exist to spelling reform that previously prevailed:

One, there still remains a great deal of ignorance, apathy, and disregard toward simplified spelling. For example, I reviewed all the issues of Language Arts, an official publication of the National Council of Teachers of English in the U.S., from 1976 to 1991. This well-known and influential educational journal did not publish a single article on simplified spelling during this period, let alone one that recommended spelling reform. The articles found in Language Arts indicate that interest in spelling instruction, as such, has fallen out of favor with experts in the field of literacy development.

Compliments for what is called the "whole language" (WL) approach (in Great Britain, the "real books" emphasis) now dominate educational publications. The WL scheme advocates "developmental" spelling. It is contended that students best learn to spell if self taught, largely by "inventing" the spelling of words. The educational establishment at present obviously is not concerned highly about spelling instruction, and even less about simplified spelling.

Two, the educated populations of English speaking countries continue to be elitist in their defenses of traditional spelling. The travails of learning to spell with an orthographic system in which letters do not predictably represent the speech sounds of English are persistently seen as an intellectual badge of courage. Part of this snobbery is based on the objections to simplified spelling as visually offensive, an affront to the esthetics of print. As noted, the popular WL movement advocates highly progressive, if not radical recommendations about spelling instruction (Goodman, 1986).

By not including simplified spelling as part of its avant-garde teaching agenda, however, WL obviously acts to perpetuate the status quo judgment that learning traditional spelling is a sign of social class status, educational attainment, and academic diligence. The fact that reforming the alphabet, for the purpose of making spellings more predictable enhances progress in beginning reading (Adams, 1990) does not sway the protectionist feeling about traditional spelling as a sign of intellectual, academic, and social merit.

Three, there remains in educational circles the argument that letter-speech sound correspondences that aid the reader have higher priority than those that favor the speller. Accordingly, the spellings bare and bear, for example, are defended because they help the reader perceive immediately the distinctive meanings of these two words (even though their spellings prove a problem for the speller). The normal tendency of able readers is to want to attach meanings to individual words being read, without delay, even if the gratification of this impulse interferes with their understanding of the sentence in which these words are located.

For example, in the sentence, The none and the buoy tolled hymn to roe, the able reader first determines the peculiar meaning of the words as they are spelled, in an accurate and rapid (automatic) manner. Only afterwards do skilled readers use the sentence context to decide on the intended meaning of each word. As far as sentence context dictating meanings given to words is concerned, it is well-established that context is not the first cue used by able readers to identify the word meanings in sentences that an author intended to convey (Schatz & Baldwin, 1986).

In short, the context of sentences does not override the skillful reader's immediate perception of the letters in individual words. Instead, when perusing sentences, proficient readers initially are attracted to the letters in words rather than to what the sentence context indicates these words mean.

The argument to retain the traditional spellings of homophones such as bear-bare, as given above might be logical. Whether it has any true psychological substance is doubtful, however. There is convincing experimental evidence that if a simplified spelling, such as ber, served for both bear and bare, the acquisition of beginning reading skills is facilitated beyond what is possible with traditional spellings (Adams, 1990). This fact does not answer, of course, the question why educators carry out such research and then fail to follow through on its implications for instruction.

Four, defenders of the direct, systematic, and intensive teaching of phonics information and its application to decoding written words also sometimes turn out to be opponents of simplified spelling. It is the contention of some phonics advocates that if phonics information is taught properly this instruction will obviate the need for simplified spelling.

While the direct and systematic teaching of phonics information can claim notable and continuing victories in comparison with the WL approach in developing reading skills (Chall, 1989), phonics teaching success is further enhanced by the adoption of the reformed spellings of words, such as the i.t.a. (=initial teaching alphabet). It is found that the children whose instruction had been with the i.t.a exhibited "a significantly lower failure rate than those who worked with the traditional orthography" (Adams, 1990, p.256). Unfortunately, nonpartisan, public interest groups in the U.S., such as the Reading Reform Foundation [see Links page] that advocate direct and systematic phonics teaching have not elected to promote simplified spelling.

The data on the general success with i.t.a spellings has not convinced educators to adopt simplified spelling, it is clear. Perhaps a different kind of data on spelling reform would. For example, I calculated that adding the suffix <-ed> to single syllable, high-frequency root words increased the spelling difficulty of the inflected form 20% over its root form (Groff, 1985). In this respect, we need data that indicates how much easier it is for children to spell such words whose inflection is <-t> (spelt) rather than <-ed> (spelled).

Similar studies could be made that compared the length of time it took matched groups of children to learn to spell enuf as versus enough, for example. The relative difficulty children have in learning to spell consonant letter clusters correctly has been reported (Groff, 1986). We now need to determine if simplified vowel cluster spellings are easier for children to learn to spell than are their traditional forms. We need more than opinion on this issue if educators are to be convinced as to the necessity of simplified spelling.

Five, less advance than is needed seems to have been made by the proponents of simplified spelling to outwit the argument that its adoption would mean that advantages to the learner from the history of the derivation of word meanings would be lost. In this respect, educators have been implored to believe that if students learn the derivational morphology of polysyllabic words they will become better readers than otherwise is possible. It thus has been recommended that time be spent teaching, for example, that adduce, educe, and induce share a common meaning element, duce (=to lead). An analysis of the limited experimental research on this issue concludes that at least this morpheme study is a satisfactory substitute for the employment of context cues (Groff & Seymour, 1987).

Six, publications favoring simplified spelling, moreover, tend to ignore what appears to be a greater practical problem resulting from its adoption. Would not whole new sets of reference books be required causing large additional expenses to individuals, schools, and libraries? Would not the great mass of past writings done with traditional spellings be put beyond the reach of students taught with simplified spelling? There hardly can be sufficient nor satisfying answers to such protests. The only acceptable response seems to be to judge the effectiveness of simplified spelling on balance. Does it not do more good than harm? Does it not represent the case of eggs having to be broken in order for a nutritious omelet to be served? A better case in terms of cost differentials must be made by the proponents of simplified spelling, nonetheless. This reform must become cost conscious.

Finally, proposals for simplified spelling in the past have been objected to on the grounds of the abruptness of the changes they envision. In this regard, keeping in mind the significant other hurdles to its acceptance that still abound, as given above, it likely will not be possible for it to meet the time schedule set for it by Ives (1992). He suggests seven major spelling reforms in as many years, one change per year. This overture is not overly ambitious when looked at simply in a rational way, of course. Nonetheless, considering the emotional nature of the opposition to simplified spelling, it is not likely that Ives' changes can be instigated with the rapidity he recommends.

Conditioning the adoption of Ives' timetable for the shift to simplified spelling is the reluctance, as noted, of educators' feelings that it actually saves learners' time and schoolmoney, and is more convenient for the teacher.

While the experimental data on simplified spelling, as called for so far, is difficult to find at present, this is not a surprising situation. It is less arduous for the advocates of spelling reform to sit at their desks rationally designing simplified spelling structures and arguments for their adoption than it is carry aut learning experiences with live subjects.

Obtaining permission to carry out such experiments also is becoming difficult. Schools inquire, if children best learn to spell in an informal manner, are simplified spelling investigations needed? "Can you assure us that your experiment will result in no loss in spelling achievement in the subjects involved", the schools ask uncharitably. Then, "What will be the future consequences to the child who has learned to spell enuf rather than enough?" Many parents would continue to judge the enuf child as less thoroughly educated than is his enough contemporary.

To summarize, the objection in the educational establishment to simplified spelling remains reactionary, noisy, and deep-seated. At the same time, educators continue their moth-like flutterings against the lamps of educational faddism. They are more than eager to adopt what they consider to be true and practical progressivism, it is clear. A foremost task of advocates of simplified spelling thus is to convince teachers, teacher educators, and educational bureaucrats that it represents serviceable progressivism, and not the cerebrations of eccentric literati.

Simplified spelling has attempted to create its exclusive bandwagon. Over the years, however, its wheels keep falling off. At the same time, the bandwagons of educational 'reform' roll on in a seemingly endless stream. Would it not behoove the simplifed spelling movement, therefore, to jump on board one of these carriages of mass appeal? The most recent example of educational innovation with fast-growing, widespread attractiveness is the "whole language" approach to literacy development (called the "real books" approach in the U.K.). "Never have I witnessed anything like the rapid spread of the whole-language movement" world-wide, testifies the dean of education at the University of Illinois, USA (Pearson, 1989, p. 231).


Adams, M. J. (1990), Beginning to read, Cambridge, MA: MIT.

Chall, J. S. (1989), 'Learning to read: The great debate 20 years later', in Phi Delta Kappan, 71, 521-538.

Goodman, K. S. (1986), What's whole in whole language?, Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Groff, P. (1976), 'Why there has been no spelling reform', in Elementary School Journal, 76, 331-337.

Groff, P. (1985), 'Word characteristics and spelling' in Washington English Journal, 7, 8-10.

Groff, P. (1986), 'The spelling difficulty of consonant letter clusters' in Educational Research, 28, 139-141.

Groff, P. & Seymour, D. Z. (1987), Word recognition, Springfield, IL: C. C. Thomas.

Ives, K. (1992), 'A spelling reform program for the l990s for English speaking adults' in Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 4 (1), 11-13.

Pearson, P. D. (1989), 'Reading and the whole-language movement' in Elementary School Journal, 90, 231-241.

Schatz, E. K. & Baldwin, R. S. (1986), 'Context clues are unreliable predictors of word meanings' in Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 439-453.

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